An American consortium’s investment in the Sharks aims to revolutionise the Durban franchise on and off the field, writes MIKE GREENAWAY in the latest SA Rugby magazine.
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If actions can back up the assured talk emanating from the American consortium that has bought a controlling interest in the Sharks, rugby might never be the same again in South Africa.
The Sharks were the trailblazers in this country when rugby went professional in 1996 – the creation of the Sharks brand after more than 100 years of being the Banana Boys – and it is looking probable that they will again be trendsetters with their amalgamation with American investors and the pizazz of international marketing giants Roc Nation, who have on their books such entertainment icons as Rihanna, Shakira and their founder, Jay Z.
In months to come, with Covid-19 having emptied the coffers of sporting franchises across the globe, will Western Province be ruing the day they spurned the advances of Marco Masotti’s MVM Holdings? Particularly if the Sharks are flush with cash, are boasting a world-class team and being flaunted across the world by the marketing muscle of Roc Nation.
Of course, there are detractors who feel the Sharks have sold off the family silverware in allowing MVM 51% in the boardroom, but the reality is the pandemic has changed the world. The sporting landscape has been radically altered and where some franchises are already holding out their begging bowls – and in South Africa that will be almost every team if the golden revenue from the British & Irish Lions tour does not happen – the Sharks will be laughing when the dollars roll in.
Sharks CEO Ed Coetzee, labelled a ‘visionary’ by Roc Nation CEO Michael Yormark, said that when MVM came knocking at the gates of Kings Park, having lost interest in Western Province’s vacillations, they were welcomed with open arms.
Why did the Sharks give an emphatic yes when WP could only scratch their heads? Coetzee explains.
‘The appeal was that the rugby industry has been hit really hard by Covid, so we needed an outside equity partner that shared our vision and who were prepared to help us in this difficult time,’ says Coetzee, who with the help of his board put together a deal so quickly and efficiently that Masotti likened it to anything he does on Wall Street, where he is a leading attorney.
‘From day one, there was a shared vision with MVM to make the Sharks a global brand and that is why negotiations went so quickly,’ Coetzee adds. ‘And we believe that equity partners are essential for us to be competitive outside South Africa, especially with us going forward into Europe this year to play in the Pro16 – we can’t compete in international competitions with a disadvantaged currency, so an equity partner will help us to not just compete but win competitions which will, in turn, bring us new revenue opportunities.’
It is a first in South African rugby for a franchise to allow a partner a controlling stake, but Coetzee says this is not as dramatic as it sounds.
‘As a matter of interest, the way MVM went about it is that they were not trying to bully the other stakeholders or to impose their will – it is just that if you put in a large amount of money into an organisation, you want a say in important matters in the management of the company. If you look at the minority protection clauses they have put in place to assist the KZNRU and SuperSport, our other shareholder, it shows the intent to grow the game.
‘For instance, the deal ensures the sustainability and the future of the club game and the development of rugby in our province,’ Coetzee explains. ‘There is a set amount of money to be paid to the KZNRU to fund the development of amateur rugby. The deal is vital not just for the Sharks but also for the club game.’
What is clear is that there has to be a meeting of minds between Coetzee and his board, including the wise head of veteran administrator Brian van Zyl (the president of the KZNRU), and the fast-talking Americans.
The traditional South African rugby culture of biltong and beer in the stands cannot be sacrificed on the altar of Yankee flamboyance.
Yormark, for instance, boldly says: ‘Fans, the sponsors and the community can anticipate seeing some different things, moving forward. We want to create an incredible product on the field, but also off the field. We want to create one of the most unique entertainment experiences for fans, not only in South Africa but around the world.
‘We obviously want the Sharks to continue to be culturally relevant, but we also want people from around the world to connect with the brand,’ Yormark continued. ‘We are developing our strategy for that right now, but we need to tell the story of the Sharks. We need people to understand what the Sharks stand for.’
But for all this to happen, the Sharks have to win, and Yormark and Coetzee are in full agreement about this.
Coetzee said: ‘The joint vision is for the Sharks to be successful on the field. As soon as you are successful on the field you become significant off it. You can’t have significance without success. We need to win, then our other values that sit around the Sharks, like diversity, our family culture, our links to the community, come in to play, but it is only relevant when you are winning on the field.’
And that surely means the Sharks will be buying some world-class players but Coetzee says there will no wild shopping spree.
‘It is crucial that we do not overhaul the squad. For the past three years we have built up a young, talented squad that has come through the age groups at Kings Park and are now competing for the national team,’ he said. ‘Our main challenge, even before MVM, was to keep these guys, and now this deal will help us do that.
‘But after every competition we play, we do an analysis of where we came short and this where we will bring in quality players in certain positions, but there will definitely not be a squad overhaul.’
The Sharks certainly need to beef up their tight five, and there is speculation that Springbok captain Siya Kolisi, who is on the books of Roc Nation, is moving to Durban.
Masotti, in answering a direct question as to whether Kolisi is to be a Shark, gave an interesting answer: ‘The Sharks have a terrific, young team and we need to be careful not to disrupt the culture at work. My hope is that we add to what is there in a thoughtful way, to help the team win.’
There are also cynics who worry that MVM’s interest in a South African rugby team is a flight of fancy and that they will soon grow bored and move on. But Coetzee says there is no time frame – MVM is in for the long haul.
‘MVM has committed to walk the long road with us, which is important because you can’t have a short-term strategy as you do not know what it is around the corner, so it is nice to have a partner in MVM that has a strong footprint in Durban,’ Coetzee says. ‘Marco was born and raised in Amanzimtoti [south of Durban], and within their consortium, there are partners with strong Durban roots.’
Masotti indeed comes from humble roots. While studying law in Durban he made pocket money by making pizzas in a Toti takeaway. In an approximation of the great American Dream, he rose to become a hard-hitting lawyer on Wall Street, but he has never forgotten his modest upbringing in a sleepy seaside town in KZN.
‘I am a Toti boy. South Africa is in my blood, and I want to give back to the country of my upbringing but, let me honest, this is also a sound business deal with a rugby team that has a good management structure and has made transformation a business priority.
‘The plan to establish rugby academies in the Eastern Cape as a pipeline to the Sharks is one example of this,’ he says, before concluding with a punch: ‘The secret to success is to work hard and stay humble. To survive on Wall Street, to quote Muhammad Ali, you have to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. That is how we plan to operate at the Sharks.’
FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES
Marco Masotti, the driving force behind the MVM Holdings group that has bought into the Sharks, counts Hillary Clinton among his friends, has discussed sport with Muhammad Ali, and took a year off from his New York law firm to work for Justice Albie Sachs at the South African Constitutional Court.
After graduating with a law degree from the University of Natal in 1991, he won a scholarship to the University of Virginia in the US, where he completed his Masters of Law. He studied with the son of Bobby Kennedy, Max, which fuelled an interest in the Democratic Party, culminating in him being a fundraiser for Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016.
When he joined the law firm Paul Weiss and Associates in New York, one of his colleagues was Ted Sorenson, the former speechmaker for John F Kennedy, who he says became his mentor.
In 1997, Masotti chose to take time off from New York to clerk for Sachs in an experience he has described as ‘humbling and life-changing’.
A fervent Springbok supporter since his father (an Italian immigrant to South Africa) took him to a Test match against the All Blacks at Kings Park in 1976, Masotti was present at the Boks’ World Cup final wins in 2007 and 2019.